3.6 The mental health of ancient soldiers
In the following audio, Helen King talks to Owen Rees of Manchester Metropolitan University about the controversy around whether ancient Greek and Roman soldiers would have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
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Transcript: Audio 2 The mental health of ancient soldiers
End transcript: Audio 2 The mental health of ancient soldiers
Hello, I’m Helen King. I’m Professor of Classical Studies at The Open University, talking to Owen Rees, the author of Great Battles of the Classical Greek World, and a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University. I know it’s extremely controversial still as to whether we can apply PTSD to the ancient world. I know this is a huge question. But what are your thoughts on that?
It is a very big question. The first one, the controversy, is probably the best place to start with. The reason it is controversial is very simply because it is a very sensitive issue, modern sensitive issue, both socially and politically.
Basically, whenever historians use the term PTSD in history, especially in ancient history, when we’re talking about it within ancient history, it’s important to understand we are not questioning or challenging modern PTSD. That is not up for debate. It is not a historian’s place to even do that.
What the historical question is, is can PTSD be removed from its social and medical context and just transplanted into any historical period? This brings in the question of what’s known as universalism. Is PTSD a universal human experience or reaction to trauma and to combat?
Which is the second important element here, that PTSD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, is not just the ailment or the issues of soldiers. This is not a military problem. When moving into the ancient world, you’ve got to start asking questions of what actually are the factors for PTSD today, not just the experience of the trauma, so the visual aspect of seeing it or doing it or hearing it. We know many of the different senses are very heavily involved.
But also the social aspects, there’s an argument by some that the modern concept of individualism that we so strongly hold to, that we are all individuals, that we hold ourselves separately from everyone else is a modern trait and is an important aspect within trauma. So if you accept all these premises, you’ve got to ask the question, well, if the ancient world don’t have the sense of individualism, would they then struggle with it in the same way?
And this has ultimately been taken further and further. And the latest – what we call relativist – model, so challenging the idea that there is a universal element at all and that actually all cultures are unique, all people are, in essence, unique has been put forward that the entire environment in which a soldier is raised, in which he is trained, in which he returns after active duty, makes the unique nature of post-traumatic stress disorder a purely modern phenomenon.
Whereas there is a side argument, one that I hold, which is that post-traumatic stress disorder is based on modern understandings of psychology of neuroscience as well as of psychoanalytical theory. Now, if we accept that the human body and human brain has not fundamentally changed in two and a half thousand years, which is not a greatly contested argument, if we accept that, then there is always the possibility, the potential, that the biological underpinnings of post-traumatic stress disorder are ever present as long as there are humans, modern humans.
So with this underlying premise that it is possible, not that it is inevitable, that it is possible, you then ask the question, well, what is there in ancient Greek society, ancient Roman society that may have either aided someone’s possible propensity for PTSD or, in fact, hindered their ability to deal with it? One of the important elements here-- we’ve been talking about training. I know you’re doing something similar within the Roman period, the training we’ve been talking about is physical training. These men are physically prepared for war and for campaign in the Roman period. In the Greek period, they don’t even do that. They’re expected to maintain their own physical prowess themselves.
What neither seem to really get to grips with or even bring up as a possibility is the mental conditioning for warfare. And even if we accept that their, perhaps, society was more violent then and that, especially in the Roman period where you’ve got 20, 25 years of active service, you become acclimatised to warfare. In the Greek period, not so much. They don’t go on long campaigns in the same way. But within the Roman period, they become acclimatised to warfare, to violence, maybe they wouldn’t have felt trauma in the same way. Maybe they wouldn’t be shocked by what they’re seeing.
However, they do at some point have to then leave the army because they have to come home. And then the question is, how do they re-adapt? We do know, or we certainly have evidence that suggests, people who from their experience in war suffer nightmares. They suffer what seems to be a flashback.
We have a description in the Greek orator Gorgias who describes men who from fear in battle, they experience a fear in battle, go ill, extremely ill, or else actually go mad because of it. And they ignore all the customs they’ve been brought up with. They ignore all the cultural norms. And as you read this, you can’t help but look at it and see trauma, the psychological trauma, that they are not prepared for.
Thank you very much, Owen. It’s a really interesting topic because it brings up so many issues about applying modern categories to the ancient world and also about the sorts of evidence we have. So that’s been really useful. Thank you.
Oh, no, thank you. Thank you for having me.
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